Fail Into Wisdom

We’ve all experienced it.  We’ll all experience it again.  Indeed, some may be experiencing it right now.  What is it?  Failure.  If you’re human, you have and will fail.  Guaranteed.

Our failures vary in magnitude, effect, and circumstance.  We may experience relational failures, business failures, moral failures, ethical failures, educational failures, personal failures, professional failures, ministerial failures, or even life-plan failures.  I’ve personally experienced more than one of these types of failures.

I’ve said, done, thought, and written stupid things.  Things I wished I hadn’t. I’ve been told that I didn’t measure up professionally.  I’ve been on the receiving end of military discipline.  I’ve hired people that I shouldn’t have, and later had to let go.  I’ve made purchases that quickly turned into buyer’s remorse. I’ve loaned people money that, despite their assurances to the contrary, never paid me back. I’ve given people money when I shouldn’t have. I’ve befriended people who later betrayed me. I’ve made numerous decisions that did not go as planned. I’ve spent money irresponsibly. I’ve taken relationships lightly. At times, I’ve taken my marriage for granted.

There were times in my life that I would let such failures get the better of me.  I thought that these failures did, or would, define me as a person.  No longer.   I now try to face my failures, both past and present, head-on.  Why?  Because I’ve come to realize that failures, when looked upon with the right attitude and perspective, are drivers of wisdom.

Wisdom is the integral exercise of knowledge, experience, and judgement.  If we acknowledge our failures, and decide intentionally to learn from them, we gain wisdom.  We will understand the factors that led to the failure so that we will not repeat them.  Conversely, if we simply ignore our failures, or wallow in them rather than learn from them, we’re destined to repeat them.

I know too many people who live their lives believing that their past failures have predestined for them a limited, miserable, failed life.  Even worse, some people will never acknowledge that, perhaps, they contributed to their failure.  Instead, they play the victim, always blaming others for their failure.  How sad.  It’s not the failures that predestined them, it’s their poor attitude.  It’s not always everyone else’s fault, many times it’s their own.  A person’s refusal to learn from failure, to own up to their own failure, is, plain and simple, weak.  Such persons will never develop the ability to not repeat the same failure.

Now notice, I did not say “. . . develop the ability to never again fail.”  That would be unrealistic.  No, that would be utter nonsense.  We’re all going to fail in life, and do so repeatedly.  The goal is to not repeat the same failures.  To stop doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result – the famously quoted definition of insanity.

One of the best ways to learn from failure – to increase in wisdom – is to accept counsel, criticism, and feedback from others – especially those who may be the victims of, or contributed to, the failure.  Sometimes that means taking the first step and seeking it out.

For example, when someone leaves our law firm, I initially consider it a personal failure.  When a relationship is weakened, or fractured, I also consider it a personal failure.  In both instances, I don’t just ignore the failure, I seek feedback (if not already provided).  I want to know why the person is leaving so that we can do better to retain talent.  I want to know how I’ve contributed to the weakened relationship so that I can do better in the future.

When I was told that I didn’t measure up professionally, I initially wallowed in self-pity.  But then I decided to seek counsel, criticism, and feedback from others.  I talked to others about my strengths and weaknesses.  In doing so, this professional failure led me on a journey into another, more rewarding and fulfilling profession.

There have also been times when, because I sought feedback, I realized that it wasn’t my fault.  That I had not contributed to the failure.  That I could do nothing about it.  Here too, wisdom gained!

I know a lot of people who not only refuse to seek feedback, they turn and run away when it is offered.  They prefer to bury their head in the sand and pretend everyone and everything is okay.  Or, as noted above, that they are simply the victim of people and/or circumstances.  I pity those people.  They are, and will remain, weak-minded and weak-willed.  They are, at best, destined to stagnate, both personally and professionally.  They are, at worst, destined to repeatedly fail.

Malcom Forbes famously said, “Failure is success if we learn from it.”  I want to be successful.  I want others to be successful.  Success in life is not measured by the amount of money accumulated, the things collected, the positions attained, or the accolades achieved.  Those are certainly nice, but in the end, they are, as Solomon wrote, all meaningless.

True success is measured by the amount of wisdom we attain, and then exercise.

I encourage you to use failures to attain wisdom, and then exercise that wisdom.

How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver! (Prov. 16:16, NIV)